Issue #200  3/23/2014
Photo Book Reviews: Maggie Taylor's No Ordinary Days; Stu Levy's Grid Portraits; Namkung's Grandeur; Photo-Primitivism; The Unphotographable; And More

By Matt Damsker

By Maggie Taylor. Introduction by A.D. Coleman. Hardbound; in trade (ISBN No. 978-0-9858784-1-2) and limited (ISBN No. 978-0-9858784-2-9) editions; 120 color plates. Information: http://www.maggietaylor.com.

Maggie Taylor's digital photomontages have become familiar totems of photography’s computer age, an era of Photoshopped wizardry and the seamless conflation of multiple images. At the same time, Taylor’s artistry has emerged as something of a bookend to the even more familiar work of her husband, Jerry Uelsmann, who has eschewed digital process in favor of traditional darkroom methods in assembling his photomontages. Theirs is a great partnership largely because it is not collaborative; they each mine very different dreamlike values from the essential act of recombining images.

With "No Ordinary Days," her latest beautifully bound collection, Taylor explores her surreal realms with an ever-growing command of the muted yet iridescent color schemes that afford her images a gorgeousness that is never far from Stygian. Indeed, there is no mistaking these visions for nursery-room fodder. Taylor's repertoire ranges freely: Victorian women wearing fish for hats, blindfolded rabbits contemplating a cup of tea, stout people tied off at their lower halves like balloons, matrons with the heads of Hieronymus Bosch death-birds, children dreamily and disturbingly adrift in boats or all dressed up on dark streets, men holding hippopotami like lapdogs.

The effect is painterly yet never far from the textures of reality, given that Taylor builds from fragments of vintage photographs sourced from the Internet or antique collections. Photoshop allows for infinite shading, smoothing, the hand-tinted colorations that Taylor applies with such subtlety, avoiding the trap of decorativeness in favor of enigmatic mood, rich detail and narrative complexity. A blurry, darkly suited man standing in a misty field, holding a woman’s portrait that is being consumed by a bright orange flame, invites us to make up a hundred stories, or reminds us of a thousand dreams. And there is a startlingly sardonic "Southern Gothic," in which a calmly posed young girl appears to be ripping the top of her head in two, as if it were a piece of paper, while her skirt dissolves into a mass of green leaves that overspill the gloomy lakeside setting; this image, in particular, suggests the magisterial reality-rupturing of Uelsmann, while most of the others are more playfully recombinative and less oriented toward psychological states.

As A.D. Coleman puts it in the book's introductory essay, "If, as superstitious people once believed, photographs capture the souls of their subjects, then Taylor constructs new living environments for the people whose likenesses she appropriates, designing new spaces for their spirits to inhabit, rich with color, full of adventure and surprise." If anything, Taylor's digitally unfettered realms are so open to impossibility that she exercises a rhetorical restraint in assembling her symphonies of birds and bees, butterflies and blossoms, the aquatic and exotic. Rather than let it all fly wildly into a surreal stratosphere, Taylor grounds her flights with human glance, gesture and mortal landscape. As far as she takes us from the here, we are never too far from a meaningful there.

By Stu Levy. Nazraeli Press. Limited edition first printing (1,000 copies). Hardbound; approximately 35 black-and-white plates; ISBN No. 978-1-59005-307-2. Ordering information: 2871 NE Alameda St. Portland OR 97212. Information: http://www.stulevyphoto.com.

The recombinant impulse in contemporary photography need not court the surreal as Maggie Taylor or Jerry Uelsmann have done. One alternative is the domestic photomontage of Oregon-based artist Stu Levy, whose “grid-portraits” are rigorously composed, densely detailed mosaics of the everyday: family, friends, artists and celebrities captured amidst the architecture of their working lives. Levy combines multiple photos of his subjects into lattice-windowed views of their studios, living rooms and retreats, resulting in lively conflations of time and space, as Levy's subjects are seen in different spots and poses at different moments within the same environment.

The result neatly transcends the gimmicky, evoking the photo-cubism of David Hockney's lush Polaroid montages while crafting something fresh and crisply envisioned in black and white. Among the famous, it is worth noting first and foremost that one of Levy's best in this collection is an image of Jerry Uelsmann himself, posed thoughtfully at three different moments in his Gainesville, Florida darkroom, amidst the countless collectible objects with which the master makes many of his photos.

There are also studio grid-portraits of Walter Chappell (nude, of course, in his New Mexico studio), rocker/photographer Graham Nash, and money-copying artist J.S.G. Boggs. The signature flourish of each grid-portrait is Levy’s bearded, mad-scientist appearance somewhere in the composition, a Hitchcock-like cameo that underscores the subjective essence of the process and reminds us—comically--that Levy is very much the Velazquez of these myriad Las Meninas.

What emerges--ultimately--in the best of these ambitious portraits, is the endlessly interesting nature of the great indoors, especially when inhabited by people who make the most of their domestic and artistic lairs. Levy's 1993 photo-grid of Chicago photographer Barbara Crane, for example, captured at multiple moments in her high-rise working space--on the phone, cradling her terrier, surrounded by prints and files, while her floor-to-ceiling windows connect us with the Chicago sky and cityscape. It is an image of indoor/outdoor that evokes all the richness and architectural depth of city life, for those lucky enough to make the most of it. Indeed, Levy's grid-portraits are, mostly, a portraiture of privilege but not necessarily of idle wealth. Levy's camera and his busy, multiple point of view locate purpose and contemplative strength, at once aspirational and inspirational.

Cosgrove Editions, Seattle, WA. Essays by Art Wolfe and Elizabeth Brown. 144 pgs; 100 color prints; hardbound; $175; ISBN No. 978-0-9779787-1-7; Information and availability: http://www.johselnamkung.net. or http://www.cosgroveeditions.com.

This silk-bound celebration of the gorgeously detailed, vividly abstracted nature photography of Johsel Namkung--a nonagenarian treasure of the Pacific Northwest--is much more than just another coffee table tome. It rewards everything from the most casual to the most discriminating viewing, since Namkung is an artist of total commitment to technique and subject.

Born in Korea in 1919, Namkung trained as a classical music vocalist, studying at the Tokyo Conservatory, and was on his way to a singing career before World War II interrupted and he and his family emigrated to the US, settling in Seattle. Switching from music to photography after receiving his Master's degree from the University of Washington, Namkung found nothing less than visual music in the awe-inspiring nature of the Pacific Northwest. His large-format work, in stunning black-and-white and near-iridescent (yet never candied) color, takes in the endless grandeur and rich, rugged textures of his environment with an unerring eye for nature's unhurried compositions.

From sweeping aerial views to close-ups (including the snow-shagged branches and peaks of Korea's national parks), Namkung locates the elemental beauty in a muddy meadow, the calligraphic swirls of foam in a shallow rock-ribbed river, the density of blossoming trees and wildflowers, or the misty dreamscape of rock formations jutting offshore at Shi Shi Beach in Washington's Olympic National Park.

This photography is infinitely handsome, but always more than merely decorative--at his most ambitious, Namkung isolates the all-over richness of unspoiled nature in photos that incorporate the tonal and formal discipline of Ansel Adams and Paul Strand yet also suggest the expressive gestural passion of Jackson Pollack or, in Namkung's aerial shots of Washington's Steptoe Butte, the color-segmented emotional complexity of Mark Rothko. Just as vital to the power of these images is Namkung's love of texture: he draws us into the network of lichens, the play of sun over arid rock (a study in sepia at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley, CA), or the striations of long-weathered or petrified wood.

Words can't do justice to these experiential masterworks, though Elizabeth Brown (former chief curator of the Henry Art Gallery) puts it well when she declares, "To call such images...'nature photography' is to honor the artist's own definition but to ignore the conventional ways that rubric is used. Far from seeking picturesque views of mountains and rivers, Namkung closely examines the everyday natural world for unexpected visual experiences...to construct rhythms and textures that evoke emotional states." Indeed, each of Namkung's images conveys a unique infinity of feeling, none of it forced.

By Valentine Plisnier. Editions Trocadero, Paris. In French and English. 324 pgs.; 300 color prints; €75; ISBN No. 978-2-9518668-4-3. Information: http://www.editions-trocadero.com, or info@editions-trocadero.com.

It is a well-known given that the artistic revolution of Picasso's and Braque's cubism, along with much else of modern art, traces many of its roots to the objects and masks of "primitive," non-European societies. Now, with this richly researched and illustrated book, art historian Valentine Plisnier narrows the focus of that familiar fact to explore how some 80 different photographic artists have found inspiration in the non-European.

Plisnier builds her case around a three-part thesis: 1) that non-European objects gave rise to a detachment that fuels a critical discourse with political, social and artistic implications; 2) that they help portray humanity in a self-questioning mode; and 3) that they lead artist-photographers to explore the possibilities of photographic material itself. Linking these three emphases with such photographic techniques as photomontage, solarization and the like, Plisnier argues that primitive artifacts went a long way in vivifying (and revivifying) the visual vocabularies of dadaism and surrealism (Man Ray, Hannah Hoch and others) and were endowed with fresh significance in the photography of Alfred Stiieglitz, Brassai and more recent photographers, such as Frederic Vidal and Eric Bottero.

Examples abound, including powerful early modern works like Edwin Blumenfeld's macabre diptych, a 1932 photomontage of Hitler's face undergoing the process of decomposition, next to a photo of the famous rock crystal skull attributed to the Aztecs. This powerful juxtaposition of the primitive and the political echoes up and down the decades, as in Gao Bo's 1995 diptych of a Tibetan citizen, the lower half of his face covered by a surgical mask--implying Chinese oppression--next to an inverted image of an ancestral skull mask.

These powerfully abstracted statements aren't echoed in every case; sometimes primitive-influenced photography seems more inert than charged with meaning or new vision. Plisnier offers any number of recent images, such as Denise Colombs' or Georges de Mire's pensive shots of people holding wooden tribal masks to their faces, their hands miming a thoughtful or bemused expression. These prove how useful non-European props have been to photographers, but not necessarily how effective they can be. More pointedly, Tony Saulnier's 1966 photo-tableau, of a formal Parisian dinner party in which the guests face the camera wearing African masks that hardly make a dent in the cool sophistication of their manner, is fascinatingly detailed, cinematically lit and composed, yet comes off as little more than a bit of counter-cultural '60s satire.

But when great photographers fall under the spell of--or seek to enchant us with--the racial truths and dreamlike sense of otherness that the primitive object can evoke, then art thrives. Raul Hausmann's 1937-39 close-up of a royal Congo figure presses the nose and lips of African humanity against the photo plane, and against our consciousness, indelibly. Robert Doisneau's 1950 close-up of an Ivory Coast mask, or Henriette Grindat's similar 1944-49 close-up, exude mystery, wonder, a sense of the primitive floating in the space between our worlds, like some erotic celebration of the other.

Well into the 21st century, fine-art photographers draw inspiration, question identity and manipulate image and material through the primitive motif. Eric Bottero's 2004 "Immortality" series constructs metal tribal masks and prints the color negative of the image on aluminum backing, conflating the ancient with the modern in subtly tonal, startlingly fresh ways. And Frederic Vidal's 2009 "Dialogue" series of tribal masks are high-contrast, solarized compositions that leap at us with an alien vigor yet insist on the earthiest of source materials. In this complex, challenging study, Plisnier taps a rich vein of photo-artistry, and reminds us how interconnected our cultures have always been.

Edited by Jeffrey Fraenkel and Frish Brandt. Accompanying an exhibition last year of the same name at Fraenkel Gallery. San Francisco, CA. Distributed by D.A.P/.Distributed Art Publishers, New York. 114 pages; 57 color plates; hardbound; ISBN No. 978-1-881337-33-1. Information: http://www.fraenkelgallery.com, or http://www.artbook.com.

This might be better titled "The Ineffable," since it seeks to explore, as Jeffrey Fraenkel puts it in his introduction, how "photographers and other artists have attempted to describe by photographic means that which is not so readily seen: thought, time, ghosts, god, dreams." What can't quite be put into words might be more easily captured, or imagined, in a photograph, especially the accidental, found images that take their rightful place in this freewheeling exhibition.

Thus, it's nice to see an anonymous 1977 snapshot of a couple posing, stiffly, in their backyard, for what amounts to a double-exposure of the trees in the background seeming to swirl, rather artfully, all over their smiling faces and torsos. It is hardly a planned image, but as ghost photography goes, it could not be a more appealing or affecting one. Of course, most of the shots in this volume are the work of proven artists, such as Ralph Eugene Meatyard, whose 1957 abstraction is an expressionist zap of fugitive light and dark, or Paul Graham's 1984 Fujicolor Super HR400 explosion of candy-colored dots, "Beyond Caring," that blinks at us like an LSD-bred hallucination, all picture plane and chaotic hue.

Inevitably, surrealism makes its claim here, as in Man Ray's 1929 "Primacy of Matter Over Thought," in which a female nude lies, erotically splayed, on a concrete floor, the image solarized in such a way that her flesh seems to melt from her not unlike Dali's iconic melting watches. Just as potent, though, is the photojournalistic reality of Malcolm W. Browne's 1968 "Self-Immolation of a Buddhist Monk," a news photo that shocked the world during the Vietnam War, capturing the moment when the monk ignites his fuel-drenched body and flames erupt through three-quarters of the frame while, just off-center, his momentarily un-singed torso and head define the horror and the stoicism of his act.

Indeed, this engaging catalogue suggests that there’s really very little that is unphotographable, at least in the mind’s eye. Pierre Jules Cesar Janssen's 1885 "Spots on the Surface of the Sun" is a remarkable work of early photography, and without its helpful title we would have a hard time determining if the dark images in the center of all that fuzzy texture are sunspots or the remnants of some skeleton in a desert dune. If anything, this eccentric array of photos is a Rorschach test for our over-stimulated, seen-it-all modern perception. And as such, it is a refreshing reminder that we really haven't seen it all.

IN BRIEF: Czech photographer Dita Pepe takes a leaf from Cindy Sherman's groundbreaking faux self-portraiture of the 1980s, but Pepe's "Self-Portraits" (KANT, Prague; information: kant@kant-books.com) stand wonderfully on their own. Pepe creates elaborately staged, opulently colored satires of European character, in which she co-stars, bringing each tableau to life with her knowing, often accusatory stare. It is worth noting that she looks a bit like Sherman, vaguely glamorous, mischievously soulful.

Posing with average folks or outsiders--families, children, the elderly, farmers, punks, hookers--Pepe insists on our complicity in the lives of others: the haves, have-nots and the marginal. Her square-framed stagings are at once entertainingly contrived and palpably real; against stark landscapes and soft skies, her subjects project a Shakespearian variety and vivacity, while a dominant color (often a hot pink, or a lime green) reminds us that the artist is stage-managing these slices of a life down to the last detail. Photographer and photo-historian Vladimir Birgus introduces us to Pepe (this is her first book) and provides some text, but her flashy, fleshly productions need no introduction.

As for Vladimir Birgus, several of his best photographs from 2007 to 2012 were recently on display at the Muzeum Novojicinska in Prague, and the catalogue of that display reveals the continued evolution of Birgus's style, which, like Dita Pepe's, revels in bright sunlight and primary colors, locating everyday people as they move (or remain still) against the structure of the modern world, from Barcelona to Sydney, Nice, Budapest, New York or Miami. Birgus also captures moments and motifs--a broken window lit from behind by a lurid red, or lonely beach towels smushed into the sand–that remind us of human presence where there is none. Otherwise, his street people seem disconnected from each other as they make their connection with us.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)